Sunday, April 5, 2015

Built in Rotherithe: Argonaut 1866, the last clipper built by Thomas Bilbe

Nelson Dock, 1868. Click to see the full-sized image
Thomas Bilbe built Argonaut in 1866 with his partner William Perry.  Bilbe was based at the Nelson Dock shipyard from 1850 until the late 1860s.  It was one of Rotherhithe's biggest shipyards. As well as tea and wool clippers, Bilbe built a ship that was armed and designed to operate in the illegal opium trade, he transported Chinese coolies as cheap labour, and pioneered a new method of hull framing and invented a mechanical slip, which he patented.   The slip can still be seen today immediately next to the Hilton Hotel's car park on Rotherhithe Street, its engine house preserved immediately behind it, facing onto Rotherhithe Street.

The site is now located within the grounds of the Hilton Hotel on Rotherhithe Street (today's postcode SE16 5HW - see the location on and is one of the few places in Rotherhithe to preserve any of the physical infrastructure of the area's shipbuilding past.   The dry dock was incorporated into the hotel complex when the Scandic Crown Hotel first owned the site.  It is the only one to be preserved on Rotherhithe.  Bilbe's patented mechanized slip and the slip's engine house also survive to the west of the dry dock, also part of the Scandic Crown's original estate.  The engine house was opened as a museum during the regeneration of Rotherhithe in the 1980s, but to as far as I know has not been open to the public in the last 20 years.  

Nelson Dock in 1862, by Stuart Rankin from his 1996
booklet "
Shipbuilding in Rotherhithe - The Nelson
." Rotherhithe Local History Paper no.2
Thomas Bilbe was a remarkable character, and I have said something about him on my earlier post about WynaudOther Bilbe ships that I have written about are Borealis, Orient,and Yatala.  Thomas Bilbe was responsible, either on his own or with his business partner William Perry, for the construction in the 1860s of the clippers Orient, Florence Nightingale, Red Riding Hood, Whiteadder, Wynaud, Coonatto, Borealis, Yatala, and Argonaut at Nelson Dock.  Like William Walker, discussed on previous posts, Thomas Bilbe specialized in composite ships.  His first composite was Red Riding Hood, and thereafter all his ships were composites, made of wood planking on an iron framework, a design that provided additional strength to the structure of a ship, and made much of the internal woodwork that had formerly been required redundant, providing additional room for cargo.  

Argonaut was built for Bilbe and Perry's own use, unlike some of their earlier ships, which had been built for the Orient Line.  Clippers built in America and Britain in  the earlier and mid 19th century had been constructed for the tea trade from China, and Argonaut was built for this trade.  The Thames shipwright strike of the 1860s was one of the final nails in the coffin of Thames clipper building, diverting most of the new contracts to the Tyne and Clyde. The rising dominance of steam ships and the opening of the Suez Canal also doomed the age of commercial sail.  Argonaut was the last of Bilbe and Perry ships, and William Walker's Lothair (launched in 1869, the year that the Suez Canal opened) was the last clipper to be built on Rotherhithe. 

Argonaut had a net tonnage of 1073, was 206ft long, 33ft wide and 26ft deep.  David R. MacGregor describes her as "sharp in the ends" with "a long floor."  She had three masts and sported a magnificent set of sails and was fitted with two cannons for defence against pirates.

It was of critical importance to ship owners that their cargoes arrive at their destinations as soon as possible, because the first cargoes back earned the best prices.  There was always, therefore, a race between the great sail clippers to return to port ahead of ships that were owned by competitors.  Andrew Shewan described Argonaut as "a galloper" and commented that her first captain, Sandy Nicholson, who was her master for many years, was "noted as a sail carrier," meaning that he liked to deploy as much sail as possible for the prevailing conditions.

Argonaut on an Angry Sea. By Henry Scott
Argonaut's first voyage was to Foochow in China on a tea run.  Leaving Foochow with her cargo of tea on 10th July 1867 she arrived back in 111 days, arriving in London on 29th October.  It was an exceptional maiden voyage, only 8 days behind that of the famous Ariel and the same number of days as another well known fast ship, The Fiery Cross.  In the following year she took 113 days to return from Shanghai to London improving her time in 1869 with a run of 109 days on the same route.  MacGregor, in his book The Tea Clippers,  says that in 1872 Captain Nicholson had "sailed through the dangerous Paracels on a moonlit night and did not have to tack till of the Cochin China coast.  The Paracels were known to be dangerous, and had not been surveyed, and taking them at night was a particularly risky short cut to the Java Sea."   

There's a great incident involving Argonaut that is described by Basil Lubbock in "The China Clippers," whilst she was in Shanghai.  Lubbock explains that most clippers were equipped with an armory of hand weapons as well as two or more cannons that could be deployed both for defence against pirates, as well as ceremonial purposes:
Shanghai Bund in 1860. Peabody Essex Museum. Click to see full size.
Regarding the use of the cannon for saluting purposes, an amusing incident occurred in Shanghai in 1868. Several of the tea clippers were moored in the river, discharging, etc., before proceeding to Foochow, when the Leander, having finished, unmoored and towed to the sea.  Her departure was signalised by a general solute from the other clippers present.  And it so happened that just as the Argonaut fired one of her guns from the starboards side of the poop, a Chinese man-of-war junk happened to be sailing past.  the wad, which had been made purpose hard of old rope in order to raise a loud report, went right through the junk's mainsail and landed on the quarter of another ship near by, knocking away some of the gilt carving on her stern.  The men on the junk fell flat on the deck with fright when the gun went off, and it knocked a hole in her sail large enough to drag a wagon through. 
Apparently the story did her a lot of good, because pirates operating in Chinese waters considered her to be a force to contend with!

I love the comment of Andrew Shewan about her ensign:  "Everywhere the British Ensign waved supreme.  It was sometimes worn at the peak, but more often on a flagstaff over the taff rail . . . . But it should be a full-sized ensign, not the insignificant mockery of a thing which some masters affected for economy's sake . . . the Argonaut, some three hundred tons bigger than the Norman Court, with a full poop and a long flagstaff, flew an ensign not much bigger than a large pocket handkerchief.  It completely spoilt the appearance of the ship and looked ridiculous, like a cock robin perched on an elephant."

Bilbe and Perry had an agreement with Jardine Matheseon and Co in China for Argonaut.  According to David R. MacGregor in his book The China Bird, Thomas Bilbe was one of the few sail ship owners and agents who understood that steamships were taking over at a terrifying speed from clippers, whilst many others maintained a blind optimism about the situation, even whilst steamers filled the Chinese harbours.  He quotes a letter from Thomas Bilbe and Co to Jardine Matheson on July 29th 1870:
"We are duly in precept of your esteemed favour of the 2nd ulto and have perused it with grate interest, the state of matters as regards the loading of the teas ships is, oar rather will be we fear, pretty much as we have anticipated.  In fact we will think ourselves well off in the face of the competition of you are able to get the Argonaut loaded at 30s with fair despatch.  Of course we don't mean that such a rate pays, but only that we will look upon it as a fair get out under the circumstances."

Argonaut hove-to with her mainsails clewed up, waiting for
the arrival of a pilot.  By James Burr. From David MacGregor's
"The China Bird."
In 1873 Argonaut was involved in an unfortunate incident when under the command of Captain Nicholson.  She was loaded with 1,465,000 cases of tea and left Foochow on 9th August 1973, headed for London. MacGregor tells a story with a less successful outcome than his earlier tale, which took place in the following year:  "In 1873, anxious to carry the somewhat westerly monsoon for as long as possible, Nicholson kept on too long and stranded on the Pescadores, being forced to jettison 300 tons of tea before getting off."  MacGregor concludes that episodes of this sort "were frequent amongst the hard-driven ships."  Even with the delay she made the trip in 111 days. 

In 1874 her new commander, Captain Cameron, was only able to achieve the trip in 128 days. It was the end of her China career.  Like so many tea clippers Argonaut was ousted from the China tea trade by the dominance of steam and the ability of steam ships to make use of the Suez Canal, which had opened in 1869.  Steam ships, which at that time required refuelling stations, were unable to cover the Australian route, giving the sailing ships a last lease of life and an important role and many of the tea clippers were reassigned to the Australian wool trade. 

In 1877 she was sold to Anderson, Anderson and Co (later the Orient line, which was eventually amalgamated into P+O).  Bilbe and Perry had built several successful ships for Anderson, Anderson and Co. for the Australian trade, and this was added to their fleet. In 1883 Anderson, Anderson and Co. sold Argonaut to Jacob Brothers of London.  They in turn sold her to Jacob Brothers of London in 1883.  Argonaut only survived another five years under Jacob Brothers.  In 1888 she put in to Port Natal (Durban, South Africa), taking on water en route from western Australia to Hamburg.  She was condemned, and her sailing life was over.

The photograph below shows Nelson Dock today.  The barriers at its Thames end are painted with the name of one of its early 1900s owners, Mills and Knight, and is now filled with water and blocked off from the Thames.   Grade 2-listed, the Nelson Dock passed into the ownership of the Hilton Hotel when the hotel chain purchased the property from the Holiday Inn, which had purchased the site from the group that owned the Scandic Crown.  For several years, rather incongruously, it was fitted with a fountain, and still has an artificial heron and real water lilies.  But it looks loved, and where heritage preservation is concerned, that's what is important. At the time of writing the Hilton Hotel is about to be upgraded to become a Doubletree, so it will be interesting to see what they do to the dock and to the patent slip and its engine house in the redevelopment process.  It would be lovely if the former engine house museum were to be re-opened.

Nelson Dry Dock at the Hilton Hotel.
Photograph by Christine Matthews.